Preventive healthcare gets boost from Supreme Court ruling
Funding for programs designed to keep low-income patients healthier and reduce costly hospital admissions will continue to come to Los Angeles as a result of the Supreme Court decision Thursday upholding President Obama’s healthcare plan.
“How am I feeling? Elated, to say the least,” said Cynthia Nalls, administrator and CEO of Hubert Humphrey Medical Center, which serves one of the most economically depressed areas of Los Angeles.
Under the healthcare overhaul, the federal government will pay half the bill for out-patient care through the expansion of the federal Medicaid medical insurance program. Eligibility for Medicaid will be extended to people with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level, affecting hundreds of thousands of patients in Los Angeles County.
Officials say the funding change marks a dramatic improvement over the previous federal reimbursement system. Paying for more preventive care offers the right incentives to keep patients out of the hospital, said Mitchell Katz, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
Humphrey serves about 132,000 patients, and 60% of them are uninsured. Currently, 5,800 of Humphrey’s patients are enrolled in Healthy Way L.A., a transitional healthcare program put in place until the federal health law changes are fully implemented in 2014.
The center’s staff hopes to more than double the number of patients enrolled in the program to 11,700 over the next year. Countywide, more than 200,000 low-income residents have already been enrolled in Healthy Way L.A.
Humphrey and other county hospitals and clinics are working to become medical homes for low-income patients, with primary doctors and other healthcare workers assigned to their care as a team. One feature is patients can call a nurse at any hour, on any day.
“Our patients love it,” Nalls said. “They love knowing they can call their team directly rather than having to travel” to the clinic.
Humphrey patient Keith Robinson, 51, said he was "very, very grateful" for the Supreme Court ruling. He has just completed classes to become a hair stylist and relies on Healthy Way L.A. coverage to pay for his blood pressure medication.
Without the program, he said, “I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t have any coverage."
About half of Humphrey's patients have diabetes or are at risk of contracting the disease.
Silvana Washington, 57, is one. She also suffers from high cholesterol and hypertension. After she lost her job, Washington said she was uninsured for two years before coming to the clinic.
“I couldn’t get my medicine; I couldn’t see my doctor, “ she said. “It was very scary. I had to really watch what I ate.”
Washington would buy herbs from a nutrition store and walk every day trying try to keep her blood pressure down. She said she had trouble getting out of bed and suffered anxiety attacks.
She said the new preventive care program at Humphrey saved her life. Her seven medications would cost more than $1,000 every three months without the coverage.
If she lost access to her medication, Washington said, “I would be dead.”
--Erin Loury and Alexandra Zavis
Photo: A patient of Healthy Way L.A., a no-cost, primary-care program for those who qualify, fills his prescription at the pharmacy at Hubert Humphrey Medical Clinic. Credit: Margaret Cheatham Williams / Los Angeles Times